Roman Rock Crystal Spoon Decorated in Openwork and Adorned with a Dolphin
Period: 1st century A.D.
Material: Crystal, Bone, Gold
Dimensions: L: 22.7 cm
From the N. Aboutaam Collection, Geneva, Switzerland
Remarkably preserved, virtually intact, aside from minor chips (edge of the bowl and handle especially); superficial deposits.
The spoon is composed of two elements: the bowl, carved from a piece of rock crystal, and the handle, carved from a stem of bone. The connection between these elements is reinforced by the presence of a thick ring in hammered gold leaf. The long and thin handle, cylindrical in shape, is decorated with incised circles alternating with moldings and with spherical and oval patterns; it terminates in a trunconical knob.
The very deep, long and narrow bowl is almond-shaped, with a pointed end. Near the handle, it turns into a particularly elaborate shaft, square in section, decorated with a pattern of four openwork volutes on the underside. On the upper part, with its muzzle resting on the edge of the bowl, is a small statuette of a swimming dolphin, its tail raised as if emerging from the water. Despite the miniature size, the crystal carver has rendered the animal with great detail and its attitude with great realism; the sinuous body of the dolphin suggests the idea of speed and of perfectly hydrodynamic movement (there is a tiny pierced openwork beneath the body of the dolphin), the muzzle is elongated, the eyes bulge and the fins are extended. Three other volutes, executed in very low relief, adorn the underside of the bowl; they follow the patterns of the stem and grow symmetrically, like the leaves of a tree, left and right of a pointed central branch.
This is an outstanding, probably unique piece, which, on the one hand, uses particularly precious materials (gold, crystal) and, on the other hand, achieves a remarkable artistic and technical quality, comparable to the statuettes in semi-precious stone and to the masterpieces of contemporary glyptic art. At table, Romans essentially used a spoon and their fingers (the fork is a much more recent invention that gradually spread from the 15th century only, while the knife was used by the slaves, in the kitchen, to cut the meat before it was taken to the table). The main reason for such a use was related to the habit – of the wealthy social classes especially – of eating, while reclining on the left side, on a triclinium; this position would not enable the diners to use their hands for holding the tableware (knife and fork, in particular). Roman spoons were generally of two types: a more circular type (cochlear), which was used to eat shellfish and eggs, and a deeper, more ovoid type (ligula), used for sauces and broths. They were mostly made of metal (bronze or, more rarely, gold or silver) or, for humbler people, of wood or of bone. Glass examples are documented, though rarely, while the use of rock crystal is only attested for a cochlear with a silver handle dated to the 1st century A.D., now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York.
Our example, however, differs from the other spoons used at table or in the kitchen, mainly because of its shape and rich decoration, which do not seem suitable for such use. The frequent association of spoons of various shapes (more or less related to the cochlear or the ligula, or more in the shape of a shallow spatula) with jewelry and with other toiletry items for women suggests another interpretation for this beautiful specimen; it could indeed be a cosmetic spoon that belonged to the toiletry set of a wealthy Roman citizen, who would use it to prepare, measure and mix cosmetic powders or, possibly, medication. This hypothesis would justify the presence of the statuette of the dolphin, a mammal traditionally associated with Aphrodite/Venus, the Greco-Roman goddess of love.
On spoons in the Roman world and on their use, see:
DAREMBERG C. and SAGLIO E., Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines, III.2, Paris, 1887, pp. 1253-1254.
GUZZO P.G. (ed.), Argenti a Pompei, Milan, 2006, pp. 95-96, nos. 65-76.
STRONG D.E., Greek and Roman Gold and Silver Plate, London, 1966, pp. 155-156.
On the cochlear housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
PICON C.A. et al., Art of the Classical World in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Greece, Cyprus, Etruria, Rome, New York, 2007, no. 462, pp. 394 and 496.
On toiletry items for women see:
CONTICELLO B. (ed.), Rediscovering Pompeii, Rome, 1990, pp. 156-159, nos. 28 ff.
DÖRIG J. (ed.), Art antique: Collections privées de Suisse romande, Geneva, 1975, no. 366.